David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - Mariano Rivera wasn't around much last season, so instead you heard a lot about Orioles closer Jim Johnson, who had 51 saves as the anchor to one of the best bullpens in baseball.
Well, Rivera's back, and if anyone needed a reminder about just how impossible it is to do what he's done for the past two decades, we have two words to say about that:
Exhibit A was on display Monday night at Camden Yards, where Johnson, coming off two straight blown saves, was entrusted to protect the Orioles' 4-3 lead in the ninth inning. One Travis Hafner home run later, Johnson had the hat trick.
And no, Rivera has never torched three straight save opportunities. Not at any point along the way to No. 625, which he nailed down minutes after Johnson did what every other closer does.
Rivera is not perfect. No one is. But he's as close to it as anyone who's ever held that job, and he is flawless (17-for-17) this season, at age 43, coming off a season lost to knee surgery.
"Believe me, I don't take it for granted," Joe Girardi said. "You see that it's hard to do it year after year after year. And you're going to see guys go through some ups and downs. But Mo doesn't go through a lot."
Back to Johnson for a second. Before his recent nosedive, he had converted 35 straight save chances dating to last July, and finished the season with a 0.36 ERA in his final 26 appearances. Since September 2011, Johnson actually leads the majors with 72 saves, ahead of Craig Kimbrel (60), Fernando Rodney (56) and Rafael Soriano (55).
The only reason Rivera isn't among that group, or in the top spot, is because of last season's freak injury while shagging fly balls before a game. And Monday night had the feel of an exiled king returning to reclaim his crown. The fact that it happened after Johnson stumbled, and after Pedro Strop served up two runs in the 10th inning, further drove that point home.
When asked about the Orioles' bullpen crumbling, and especially Johnson, Rivera showed empathy for a fellow closer. His response was about as predictable as one of his performances.
"I don't think about it," Rivera said. "I have to focus on what I have to do. We all go through it. It's normal. If you're a closer, if you think that you're not going to go through it, I think you're fooling yourself. You just have to be ready to bounce back and turn the page and continue moving. That's it."
Once again, Rivera's supporting cast is following his lead. While the Yankees always seem to do a fine job assembling a bullpen, there must be something to sharing that lonely outpost with a legend such as Rivera. It's got to be more than a coincidence.
Look at Shawn Kelley. The Yankees got him in mid-February from the Mariners for an outfielder named Abraham Almonte. Maybe it's too early to evaluate that swap, but we know this: Kelley has 33 strikeouts in 181/3 innings. He also replaced a struggling CC Sabathia with one out in the seventh and stranded a runner at second by whiffing Adam Jones and Matt Wieters.
"There's nothing better," Kelley said. "To come into a situation where there's been damage done and then to be able to stop it, it's really big for momentum. Any time you can shut it down like that, it's a big boost. We're one swing of the bat from being back in it."
That's exactly what happened. Hafner dented Johnson and David Robertson followed with a semi-clean ninth to keep the score tied at 4. The only blemish was an infield hit by Jones.
"Unbelievable," Sabathia said. "But that's just been them all year. We knew that was a strong part of our team, but they've really carried us. What can you say about them? They've been great."
With Monday night's performance, the Yankees' bullpen has a scoreless streak of 262/3 innings over their last 10 road games, surpassing the 252/3-inning mark from way back in 2002.
Of all the reasons for the Yankees' fast white-knuckle start, the relief corps is front-and-center again, with Rivera its ageless maestro.
"Mo's special," Vernon Wells said. "It's not normal what he does."
Nope. Clearly, normal is what everyone else does.